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Speed Week: Tesla Model S P85D vs BMW i8

682bhp of battery power tackles revolutionary hybrid in a twin-test from the future

  1. WELCOME TO TRACK DAY 2035. PLEASE HAVE YOUR HOLOGRAPHIC DRIVER ID READY FOR INSPECTION BY THE RECEPTIONIST DROID. TODAY’S NUCLEAR THREAT LEVEL IS ORANGE…

    Mercifully, I’m not sat here in the Tesla Model S modelling Bacofoil, and lunch was a beefburger, in lieu of Orwellian vitamin pills and intravenous nutrient paste. But otherwise, this is the future. The world’s best electric car. Alongside it is perhaps BMW’s greatest achievement to date, the mind-blowing i8. Meet the first EV (and sub-£700k hybrid) ever invited to Speed Week, and they’re certainly not here to offset our carbon footprint or as a sop to the noise limit obliterated earlier by a helicopter gunship playing chicken with a McLaren P1 GTR.

    No, I’m gliding out of the pitlane in the Tesla with total impunity because, quite simply, it’s the fastest car here. That won’t be news to anyone with a working internet connection really, as the Model S has surpassed surprised cats and Russian dashcams to become the darling of YouTube virality. Search for ‘P85D drag race’ and you’ll tumble down a virtual rabbit hole of Teslas obliterating McLarens, Lamborghinis and (look away, Generation PlayStation) Nissan’s drag-race king, the GT-R, from standstill.

  2. The Model S has been irritating automotive aristocracy since 2012, but it’s the ‘P85D’ moniker that’s critical for the car’s online stardom and alarming, pulverising acceleration. The ‘85’ signifies the flagship’s 85kWh battery output, which makes this the M5 among 5-Series, if you like. ‘D’ stands for dual-motor, and is the subtle key to this 2,100kg, five (or seven)-seater saloon’s rocketsled performance.

    In addition to the rear axle’s 464bhp e-motor, which was already potent enough to make the Model S ballistically quick for a Panamera-sized barge, the D adds a 218bhp motor to the front axle. So how’s this for a g-force recipe: all-wheel drive, 682bhp, and 695lb ft on demand with so much as a wry glance at the throttle. See, Tesla founder Elon Musk ain’t no Bond villain. He’s bringing frankly philanthropic power to the people.

  3. It’s the instantaneous nature of the acceleration, rather than its sheer quantity, which uproots your intestines and peels back your eyelids. In fact, I’m not sure ‘acceleration’ is the right term. That implies gaining speed, which the P85D doesn’t, really. It’s trundling one moment – zooming the next. Christening the power delivery ‘Insane Mode’ is a tad gratuitous, but Tesla deserves to willy-wave a bit. Nothing on four wheels is as softly spoken, but wields such a large stick.

    As just one example of how Tesla is mulching the car-industry rule book, consider that shortly, every 85kW Tesla will get faster overnight. While their owners sleep, Tesla will release an over-the-air update to the ECU, automatically downloaded to each individual car. Your iPhone can barely do that. The tweak drops the official 0–62mph time from 3.2 to 3.1 seconds dead – half a length ahead of a well-driven McLaren F1. In a world where racing teams blow millions per shaved tenth, caps should be duly doffed to a family saloon which quite literally achieves overnight success.

  4. I stagger from the Model S and tumble into the i8’s hammock-low seat. Immediately it feels sedate – vulgar even, when its fossil-fuel motor thrums into life in the middle distance. But we’ve learnt not to underestimate the i8: not as a continent-spanning GT, nor as a true sports car to upset Europe’s best, and, yet again, it rises to the occasion on track.

    You can’t be greedy with turn-in speed. The tyres trade surface area for aerodynamics, there’s a healthy dollop of roll, and the steering’s lightness doesn’t lead you to lean on the front end. But once the i8’s settled, you can lean so hard on it. You sense the centre of gravity is around your ankles, so you let the car flow into the bend and patiently feel the suspension compress. Then take aim, and fire.

  5. The i8’s 185lb ft of electro-torque drags the front axle out of slow corners with laser-guided accuracy, and just as the invisible current of urgency begins to tail off, a 228bhp turbo afterburner introduces the i8’s second wind. Good old-fashioned combustive power is best deployed on the long drag uphill to Turn 2. While the P85D romps up to the ton, then labours every extra mph, the i8 effortlessly tops 125mph as you brake for the dicey right-hander, marvelling at how little corruption greets you deep in the brake pedal’s travel as its inverter hungrily regenerates electricity.

    Brakes, not power, are what prevent the Tesla hanging onto the i8’s coat-tails across an entire lap. Following Tom Harrison in the i8, I was on the radio within two laps to ask him to hang back so the cars would appear in the same shot. Fade or brake lumpy regen isn’t the culprit – it’s just the sheer amount of weight they have to deal with. At 2,106kg, the Model S is a whole Caterham heavier than the i8, and requires plenty of space to shed its prodigious pace.

  6. You’re expecting me to tell you that means it’s utterly pants the rest of the way around the track, aren’t you? So was I. Got the thing stopped, turned in, heard the tyres groan and congratulated myself on predicting the Tesla would roll over onto its recessed doorhandles. Wrong.

    Because the Model S’s 18,650 cells live under the cabin floor in the bombproof ‘skateboard’ chassis, its centre of gravity is snake-low. Since it’s four-wheel-drive and hefty, I was driving it like a big Audi, juggling the mass transfer and expecting understeer. But because the heavy bits are slung along the length of the chassis, there’s naught but fresh air where, say, an RS7 houses a bloody great V8. So the nose simply tucks in, and you can carry quite extraordinary speed. Uncanny, wondrous, range-decimating speed.

  7. Neither of these two Car v2.0s were anything like as out of sorts on the Red Bull Ring as I’d feared. The i8 actually runs the Huracán close as the most approachable mid-engined supercar I’ve come across. Think of these, then, as an automotive Turing test.

    In 1950, Enigma-cracker Alan Turing predicted you’d be able to hold a plausible conversation with artificial intelligence within a century. On the evidence of Apple’s Siri and ever-improving car voice control, we’ll probably manage it by the next decade. Even five years ago, no one would believe a battery car could leave you speechless on a circuit. Long before our track days turn dystopian, this sensational pair already has.

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